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7h. Cavalry

In World War 2, American Forces under GEN Mark Clark captured Rome on 4 JUN 1944. That major accomplishment was pushed off the front pages on newspapers worldwide by what happened on 6 JUN 1944.

The cavalry battle that took place in Eastern Pennsylvania would likely have made headlines and history books if it hadn’t occurred on 3 JUL 1863 simultaneous with Pickett’s Charge!

Confederate MG J.E.B. Stuart wandered into Robert E. Lee’s HQ on the evening of 2 JUL having been out of touch with his commander for weeks. He received a frosty reception. Since his main body of Cavalry was too far east to be of use in the main battle, he was ordered to mount a harassing attack in Meade’s right flank and supply trains. Stuart returned to his Cavalry early on the third of July with an order to ride. His plan was to move south and hit Meade’s supply trains that were using the Baltimore Pike as their main route in and out of the main battlefield. Between Stuart and his objective for the day was the Hanover Rd. That area was being screened (guarded) by BG Gregg’s Union Cavalry Corps composed of two Divisions.

Out in front of Gregg’s main body was a Regiment under COL McIntosh. They ran head on into Stuart’s men riding hard south. Stuart tried a rapid shift to his right (west) to try to outflank McIntosh but a quick thinking BG Custer sent the 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment to block Stuart and save McIntosh. But the Rebel assault was too great and McIntosh’s line broke; some heading south and others east. What came next was the stuff of Hollywood movies. Custer led the 7th Michigan Regt. in a full gallop, sabers glistening, bullets flying charge at Stuart’s front lines. Seeing (and hearing) this, McIntosh’s men re-grouped and re-joined the fray. Cavalry clashes are never prolonged. As McIntosh’s men returned, Custer and the 7th withdrew.

Watching from a nearby hilltop, Stuart responded in kind. Two of his brigades began a slow march horses shoulder-to-shoulder, then a trot, then into a full blown cavalry gallop. Even Custer was said to have been impressed by the display of discipline and power. Their “rebel yell” was met by Gregg’s artillery!

The 1st Michigan Regt. took first crack at the galloping horde and barely had an effect. Next in their path was Custer’s 7th Michigan. He attacked the center while the 5th Michigan bore down on the Rebel’s right flank. Horses were upended; riders flying over their heads; sabers and pistols were the weapons of the moment. It was the kind of desperate fight for which Medals of Honor are often awarded! It lasted barely minutes; both sides withdrew as if agreed upon by some rules of engagement.

As battles go, it was clearly a draw. But the Union won the draw! Gregg had held the Hanover Rd. by committing only half his forces. But most importantly, Stuart got nowhere near Meade’s logistical trains!

It is also somewhat fitting that Buford’s Cavalry started this clash of titans and it was Custer clashing with Stuart that brought Day 3 to a close.

The rest of the story:

This major Cavalry clash without Infantry support is often treated as a stand-alone event that took place more or less simultaneously with Pickett’s Charge. But In Lee’s vision it was not supposed to end the way it did. Per Troy Harman’s ‘unified theory’ of how Lee had an over-arching and fully integrated plan for his vanquishing of the Army of the Potomac, Stuart’s Cavalry were expected to come galloping into the Union rear elements, crossing the Baltimore Pike just south of Culp’s Hill. He was to be a counter-balancing attack from the east as Pickett surged from the west.

Of course, as per the rest of the battle, nothing actually played out the way Lee planned it in his mind. At each step, the Union forces thwarted his attempt to banish them from the battle field.

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